2010-06-03 / News

School budget reduction will hurt the students

By Cathy Kaiser

The Jamestown School Committee “hears” the message the Jamestown Taxpayer’s Association is sending in seeking reductions to the employee and retiree health insurance lines of our proposed budget.

We get it. Changes we negotiated in our past two union contracts clearly demonstrate that the School Committee and administration understand and embrace the need to reduce the town’s liability in the area of health care costs.

In previous bargaining sessions, we significantly reduced the cost of future retiree benefits by moving senior employees who were then eligible for lifetime healthcare coverage to a Plan 65 alternative; teachers hired between 1985 and 1997 are limited to two years of post-retirement coverage; teachers hired after 1997 receive no post-retirement health care benefits.

In addition, we lowered the cost of employee premiums – as did the town – by negotiating a higher employee co-pay for doctor, urgi-care and emergency room visits. Last year, we further cut costs by joining the town as members of the Governmental Health Group of Rhode Island.

JTA has offered additional suggestions for lowering the cost of premiums, any of which can be brought to the table during negotiations. It must be recognized, however, that none of these savings can be achieved without the mutual agreement of the unions. We are grateful for our two unions’ proven spirit of partnership, which has allowed us to together adopt the above-outlined cost-saving measures. The school committee is committed to a sustained cost containment effort.

In JTA’s January presentation to the Jamestown Town Council, the group recommended that we freeze the dollar amount of the benefits received by current retirees. We do not have the legal authority to do this; retirees are entitled to the plan in place at retirement if so stipulated in the contract at that time. We can, however, encourage retirees with lifetime coverage to switch voluntarily to Plan 65. This is a direction that we will pursue. Unfortunately, the majority of our retirees are younger than 65 and thus not yet eligible for this costsaving alternative. Furthermore, the “savings” identified by JTA for this line item depend entirely on the voluntary good will of our retirees. These are not savings the schools can bank on.

The warrants filed by JTA identify four areas for reductions: Life insurance, health insurance, dental insurance and retiree benefi ts. The School Committee does not have the power to unilaterally make reductions in any of these line items. These benefit savings must be negotiated or solicited; thus, our only timely option in response to passage of a warrant will be to make cuts in programming and resources – areas that directly impact students.

The school budget as proposed is already 2.24 percent lower than last year. Our administrative team has voluntarily foregone any salary increase for the second year in a row, again putting student interests above their own. The schools face a 3.8 percent reduction in state aid, as well as the possible enactment of a funding formula that could further reduce Jamestown’s state aid by an eventual 51 percent – or eliminate it completely.

If passed, the reduction of $115,288 sought by the JTA will intensify the challenge we face as we strive to sustain quality of programming with fewer dollars. We have made significant inroads into health care cost containment and our efforts are ongoing. A vote to reduce the school budget won’t further that longer-term effort; it will instead have the direct effect of reducing services for kids.

The most urgent threat to personnel cost containment in Jamestown comes from the State House, where the leadership is purported to be supporting passage of binding arbitration legislation before the legislature adjourns in two weeks. Rhode Island cities and towns cannot afford a new costly labor mandate. Consider the example of neighboring Connecticut, where school committees must weigh whether to accede to union demands or incur the additional expense of binding arbitration – and where, historically, a majority of arbitration rulings have favored the unions. The inflationary effect of binding arbitration is readily apparent in that state, whose teachers are the third highest paid in the nation.

Mandating binding arbitration to end bargaining impasses is no bargain for taxpayers. Please email Representative Deb Ruggiero at rep-ruggiero@rilin.state. ri.us and Senator Teresa Paiva- Weed at sen-paivaweed@rilin. state.ri.us to let them know that Jamestown voters oppose binding arbitration in any form.

Cathy Kaiser is chair of the Jamestown School Committee.

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